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Here’s a turnabout: Brandeis University, which set off a storm two years ago when trustees tried to sell art from the Rose Art Museum’s collection, now plans to renovate the museum, rather than destroy it.

Things are not so dire as they once seemed…

The university has posted a press release, dated Mar. 10, on its website, but the fact just came to my attention. The renovations are scheduled to take this place in the original building this summer, in preparation for the museum’s 50th anniversary next fall. The art will start coming down in April, although the newer wing will remain open, with a new access point, through mid-June.


Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts


(Rose Art Museum/Brandeis University)

If you read the papers on Friday morning, before getting away for Memorial Day weekend, you know that Brandeis University has a new plan to raise money from the Rose Art Museum collection. The Boston Globe‘s article reveals that the administration has engaged Sotheby’s to explore “options other than sale” of works from the collection, as a way of plugging the university’s budget gap.


Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

Rose Art Museum (Photo: Los Angeles Times)

Brandeis continues to make progress closing its budget gap, but as I wrote in a short article for The Art Newspaper’s April issue, which is now on newsstands, the Rose Museum continues to be in the administration’s crosshairs.

Brandeis answered my questions in an email, issued by the Press Office…


Judith H. Dobrzynski
Real Clear Arts

Funding crisis … Visitors tour the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University, Massachusetts, January 2009. Photograph: Essdras M Suarez/AP

Facing what has been described as a potential $79m (£52.5m) deficit over the next six years, a dwindling endowment and a near-exhausted reserve fund, Brandeis University in Massachusetts announced earlier this year that it had no other choice but to close its prestigious Rose Art Museum and sell the 8,000-piece collection. Prior to releasing the statement, it made a last-ditch effort to solicit funds from donors, but many had lost money in the Madoff Ponzi scheme, and the university came to the conclusion that it was out of options.

Economic hardship or not, this didn’t go down well within the art world. For one, these were not the financial problems of the museum – which is largely self-sufficient – but those of the university. Secondly, the loss would simply be too great. Established in 1961, the museum’s world-renowned collection includes early works by masters such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Roy Lichtenstein. It also has a long history of hosting extremely significant exhibitions, from Joseph Cornell’s solo show at the Rose in 1968 to Dana Schutz’s first solo show in 2006, which ran concurrently with a Matthew Barney exhibition.

Deciding to shut down a museum of such stature and sell off its works is an extreme option. Brandeis should have tapped the Rose’s fundraising expertise instead. After all, internationally recognised art institutions don’t achieve their reputation without the best development staff in the country. Moreover, as a means of protecting valuable public resources, the ethical code of the Association of Art Museum Directors prevents the sale of objects for purposes other than acquisition. The ensuing debate gets complicated very quickly. In response to public criticism, Brandeis now claims the museum will remain open as an educational centre, with studio and exhibition space. University president Jehuda Reinharz went so far as to describe this as a demonstration of the institution’s commitment to the creative and visual arts community. The statement was understandably poorly received; a learning office is not equivalent to a world-class art institution.

Brandeis also created a new panel to explore further options for the future of the Rose, and last week announced the museum would be staffed for the summer, while it continued to look for alternative sources of funding to support the university. But the Rose already has an independent administrative body designed to direct the museum’s future – its board of overseers. And the mere fact that the Rose employs staff now is not evidence of Brandeis’s support: due to a failure to renew contracts as of June the Rose will have no director, no curator, no education director, no administrator, no funding stream and no programme.

If these actions look ugly now, they will only get worse: a statement on the museum’s website insists that the Massachusetts attorney general’s office has insisted the Rose remains open in some capacity, and that it will weigh in should the university attempt to sell the collection. The Rose also now employs a lawyer and is looking for legal documents relative to the trust of the museum. It has all the makings of a long and very messy legal battle. But if the university’s financial situation is as dire as it claims, gambling what money it does have on a court case to legalise the sale of the art collection doesn’t look like a particularly safe bet. It could take years to win – if they win at all.

Paddy Johnson

Brandeis has rehired two of the Rose Art Museum’s five staffers and scheduled a show from the permanent collection, which will open this summer. The Future of the Rose Committee, formed in March, released a six-page report today. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff)

The committee charged with examining Brandeis University’s controversial decision to change the Rose Art Museum’s mission and sell some of its art issued a vote of confidence for the beleaguered administration and made no push to save director Michael Rush’s job, according to an interim report released today.

The Future of the Rose Committee, formed in March in response to widespread criticism of the university’s plan to turn the museum into a student-based arts center and sell art to make up for budget deficits, praised the administration in the six-page report and expressed hope that Brandeis has “stepped back from the precipice.”

But Rose supporters have disparaged the committee, which is led by philosophy professor Jerry Samet. They say the administration refused to install as members people recommended by Rush and Jonathan Lee, chairman of the museum’s board of overseers.

“It reminds me of something like a Stalinesque show committee,” said Lee, chairman of the Rose’s board of directors. “These are all hand-picked people by the administration. We didn’t get to pick who represents us.”

The university announced in January its intention to transform the museum into an educational art center and sell some of the artwork. The announcement spurred an international uproar and vehement protests. Rush’s contract is up at the end of June and it will not be renewed.

Last week at least 30 professors signed a letter of protest, saying that Rush should be kept in the position.

Lee said he wasn’t surprised by the interim report, issued late yesterday, which largely sets the stage for a continued examination of the Rose and a final report to be issued in the fall. He also questioned the administration and committee’s contention that the Rose remains a viable museum when director Rush’s tenure is set to end in two months.

There isn’t going to be a director or curator,” said Lee. “Nobody is going to lend us a picture for a show and we are not going to in any way be able to put a show together.”

In the report, the committee said the university’s Board of Trustees will decide whether to sell the art. “We assume that whatever decisions the board makes regarding such sales, there will remain a substantial collection of art to be preserved and made available for research, study, and cultivation,” the report states.

Over the next few months, the committee will get input from faculty, students, Rose supporters, Brandeis trustees, and outside specialists before issuing a final report in the fall.

Since announcing it would close the Rose in January, Brandeis has been trying to restore its reputation as a school that values the arts. It hired a local public relations firm and restated its intentions for the Rose. The university still reserves the right to sell artworks, but is examining how to keep the Rose open. While Rush’s contract runs out June 30, Brandeis has rehired two of the Rose’s five staffers and scheduled a show from the museum’s permanent collection to open this summer.

The issue of selling art remains controversial, and Brandeis has been criticized by faculty, students, and museum leaders throughout the country.

Samet could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in a recent interview, he acknowledged that some people doubt the legitimacy of the committee.

“I’ve been told I’m a hamster in a wheel, that the administration knows full well what the future of the Rose is going to be,” he said in a phone interview last month.

But he doesn’t believe that. He said he thinks the administration hasn’t decided what to do with the Rose. He said he also wants to better understand the implications of selling artworks.

“Is it something like what the NCAA does when there’s a recruiting violation – a limited punishment for a period of time? Or is it like being on some blacklist forever and off the grid and shunned? I don’t know which it is.”

Geoff Edgers
Boston Globe

Photo: Christopher Knight

When a snow storm barreled into Boston early last week, Brandeis University’s imperiled Rose Art Museum had to postpone an all-star literary symposium being convened to analyze the school’s headline-making decision to shutter the museum and sell all or part of its modern and contemporary art collection. Now that warmer weather has brought at least a momentary thaw (and plenty of slush), the symposium, “Preserving Trust: Art and the Art Museum Amidst Financial Crisis,” has been rescheduled for March 16…

One issue the panelists might want to discuss is the modest level of museum attendance. The low numbers — reportedly about 13,000 to 15,000 annual visitors — might suggest to some that losing the Rose and its art collection wouldn’t be so dire. That, however, would be a mistaken impression.

During a visit to the Rose on Sunday afternoon, I witnessed a fairly steady stream of people poking around the permanent collection and taking in several small shows, including a quirky presentation of paintings made in 1950 by German-born American Abstract Expressionist Hans Hofmann. At 70, he had been hired to work on a mural project in Peru with Spanish-born American architect Josep Sert, who later ran the design program at Harvard. If the subject sounds a bit esoteric, it is — and what of it? Hofmann was an important painter and an influential teacher, but this is not a show designed to bring in crowds. Rather, it’s for the art-curious.

The university’s shocking announcement in January has no doubt generated an attendance spike. Friends in Waltham, Mass., who live not five minutes from the school accompanied me on their first-ever visit to the Rose, curious about the commotion they’d read about in the paper and heard about on the radio. I’d guess others were satisfying a similar urge.

But why should the state of the museum’s general popularity …

… have anything to do with its reason for being, never mind its fate? Unlike Brandeis, reports are that the Rose Art Museum is in pretty stable financial shape. Costs are covered, the collection (at just over 7,000 works) continues a steady if modest growth. The museum even pledges a percentage of its annual operating budget to the university. For the school it’s not a financial drain — just the opposite.

An average rate of about 50 visitors a day might imply that students with course requirements and area art-junkies are the only ones attending. If so, that’s OK. With costs covered, the quality of the experience, not the quantity, is what counts.

We have become so accustomed to using pop-culture yardsticks — profitability, celebrity, fashion — to measure the success or failure of art and art museums that it’s easy to lose sight of what matters. In fact, a degree of obscurity, relatively speaking, is one of the great charms of the Rose’s collection.

Yes, celebrated masterpieces by De Kooning, Johns, Lichtenstein, Hartley, Gris and others are impressive. But so is the weirdly erotic, metallic-hued 1916 Morton Schamberg machine-abstraction. And Florine Stettheimer’s delirious fantasy of drawing-room gentility, 1920’s “Music.” Bruce Conner’s big, lace-trimmed 1963 collage-assemblage of a faded, peeling attic wall is a poignant murmur of the ravages of time, so different in tone and feeling from Robert Rauschenberg’s nearby — and far more famous — 1961 Combine, “Second Time Painting,” with its flashy colors and actual, embedded clock.

The diversity and richness of the encounters are what make a museum distinctive. They strike a deep chord. In today’s vulnerable economic landscape, a bigger audience base might make the Rose more difficult to abuse. But, really, is a protection racket what art museums in America now require to get by?

Christopher Knight
Los Angeles Times

Yale University Art Gallery

Cease and desist is the advice I give university administrators toying with thoughts of closing their campus museums and peddling the art, as Brandeis recently threatened to do. Just stop. Period. Bad way to go.

If it helps, consider your museum and its collection in purely materialistic terms, as a big chunk of capital, slowly and fortuitously accumulated. Once spent, it is irrecoverable. Your university can never be that rich in that way again. Or view the art in your care as something that doesn’t belong to you. Like any legacy it belongs to the future.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to campus museums and galleries at Yale University that have exceptional shows this winter. One, devoted to Picasso and writing, is drawn almost entirely from the university’s permanent collections. Another, on the role of tea in Japanese culture, is composed primarily of objects on loan from a single Yale alumnus. A third, imported from another university museum, brings together Degas, geology and gorillas to celebrate Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday. And they are supplemented by a tidy roundup of contemporary Indian artists.

All the shows are fairly small. All are, in different ways, beautiful. All are closely researched studies on fascinating subjects we know too little about. Yet each is just a shade too specialized or unglamorous or experimental to find a home in our public art institutions. If it weren’t for academic museums, these shows wouldn’t happen. And that would be a real loss…

One bad idea, that university museums are expendable commodities, remains alive in our collective system. Despite a lot of hemming and hawing in the face of protest, Brandeis still gives every indication of wanting to close its Rose Art Museum, opening the path to selling its art, as foolhardy as that would be in the present economy.

But at least one good idea seems to be gaining ground. In a bleak economy, when our big public museums threaten to sink under budget-busting excesses, the university museum offers a model for small, intensely researched, collection-based, convention-challenging exhibitions that could get museums through a bumpy present and carry them, lighter and brighter, into the future.

Holland Cotter
New York Times

Few things are more poignant than a gem of a museum whose days may be numbered. So it was at the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University on a visit Friday, days after the university’s trustees voted unanimously to trash the institution by closing it and auctioning off the 6,000 works in its collection. The action came without consulting either the museum’s own board of governors or its director, Michael Rush.

The Brandeis vote was an act of breathtaking stealth and presumption: a raid on a museum that supports itself, raises its own funds and has consistently planned wisely for its own future without leaning on the university. The trustees treated it nonetheless as a disposable asset.

On Friday the only signs of any disturbance were on the exterior of the Rose’s dainty, cast-concrete building, which opened in 1961, just 13 years after the university itself was founded. The museum’s glass front was festooned with posters that exclaimed, “Don’t Close the Rose” and “Fire Sale,” the remnants of a student sit-in the day before.

But inside, the art was, as usual, doing what art is always trying to do, speak to people directly about pleasure and beauty, about personal capacity and freedom, about how individuals acting on their own can find themselves, express those findings and make a difference.

The symbiosis that art creates among individual works, among people and among disciplines was everywhere evident. In the airy Lois Foster Wing, which, when completed in 2001, gave the museum its first large gallery space, an invigorating array of paintings and watercolors by Hans Hofmann — all from 1950 — recount a big year in the creative life of this important teacher of young Abstract Expressionists.

Here is an artist at the top of his form, giving his all. Any would-be painters in the gallery are reminded that gestural painting, seemingly the easiest kind to do, has a long history and must be approached with a great deal of insight and discipline. The show gives the kind of transformative personal encounter with art that will no long be offered to Brandeis students.

In the original 1961 part of the museum, “Saints and Sinners,” an exhibition drawn largely from the museum’s holdings, shows Brandeis interacting with the larger world of art and art institutions. It is part of a new series of shows organized by artists and curators from outside, in this case Laura Hoptman, a curator at the New Museum in New York. The works she has selected confirm the excellence of the Rose collection: pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Bruce Conner, Philip Guston and Morris Louis. But beyond that, they create a daisy chain of links that invite close looking. Older artworks suddenly look fresh, recent ones seem utterly at home.

It is hard to know how anyone could destroy this museum, but that’s what Brandeis announced it would do last Monday. It’s hard to think of a comparably destructive — and self-destructive — move in the art world today.

The rationale, given by Brandeis, was the university’s dire financial straits: a 25 percent decline in its endowment, a $10 million deficit on this year’s budget and the reality that fund-raising will falter because of the market’s skid. You could almost feel the collective tremor of university museums around the country, as well as art dealers circling, indignant collectors demanding that the Rose return donated gifts of art, and prospective donors changing their wills.

Speaking to The Boston Globe, Lois Foster, a longtime benefactor, whose husband built the Lois Foster Wing barely eight years ago, compared it to a death. As the director, Mr. Rush, noted, even if the trustees reversed themselves or the museum was saved, who would ever again trust its autonomy enough to donate to it?

What the university’s president, Jehuda Reinharz, and the trustees don’t seem to realize is how their actions stain the reputation of Brandeis itself. He characterized the choice as “painful” and “difficult,” but it had all the earmarks of a desperate quick fix rather than a rational decision. He even said it in no way diminished Brandeis’s commitment to the visual arts, pointing out the university could turn the museum into an arts studio and study center. But the decision was devastating for the university’s art and art history departments, which have always relied heavily on the museum.

At the museum on Friday, Aliza Sena, a 19-year-old sophomore, said that graduating seniors in art and art history were especially traumatized. “It’s like the school telling them that their degree is fluff,” Ms. Sena said. She transferred this year from Tulane University after deciding that she wanted to major in art rather than business, and the Rose was a major factor in her choice.

“I’m devastated,” she said. “It’s crushing to figure out this school’s priorities, and sad that they can make a decision without consulting anyone knowledgeable. It really makes me reconsider being here.”

The outcry in the art world was also fast and furious, with more than a few people noting that the rapidly sinking art market made this an idiotic time to sell art. By week’s end Mr. Reinharz was backpedaling on the sale, saying it was not clear what would be sold or when. He was nonetheless adamant that the museum would be closed.

Of course he was. What better way to avoid the messy legalities of deaccessioning artworks, with the attendant denunciations from Association of Art Museum Directors and other professional organizations that monitor and weigh in on sales of individual works of art? (The association’s guidelines say that art works can be sold only to finance acquisitions.) If there is no museum, there are no guidelines to violate.

The Rose is an innocent bystander that is being punished for its excellence. Its budget is balanced; it has brought Brandeis nothing but glory and prestige at almost no cost. Throughout its short life, the museum has been an object of passion for a small group of benefactors who have paid for its building and two additions and have bolstered its endowment and donated acquisition funds. Perhaps most important of all, 80 percent of the art in the museum’s collection has been given to it by donors.

In addition to receiving almost no money from Brandeis, the Rose must do its fund-raising outside of the university’s donor base; but then, when the museum spends any of the money it raises, 15 percent of it must be paid to the university. In return for this Brandeis pays for the Rose’s light and heat.

And now the trustees have stepped in and said, in effect, “Thank you very much for your dedication, generosity and sacrifice, but this jewel is ours to dispose of as we please.”

But the greater the art, the greater number of people “own” it. The greater its power, the more it expands our lives. In a just and moral society, art is crucial to our understanding of freedom, difference and individual agency.

The message out of Brandeis University last week — to its own students and to the world — was that when the going gets tough, none of this matters. Art is dispensable.

Roberta Smith
New York Times